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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Or: The Ancient Roman Origins of Native Advertising)

Truly original ideas are hard to come by. Search was a big one. The way social media has evolved makes it unlike anything else as well. And marketers have told us that PebblePost’s Programmatic Direct Mail® is a unique new marketing channel.

On the other hand, a lot of entrepreneurs who think they’ve invented the next big thing have merely imitated ideas from the past, whether they’re conscious of it or not. Here’s a case in point. One day we were at an agency making our pitch. (Yes, I know a lot of my stories start like this, but that’s life at a startup.) We set the stage for our presentation by telling the assembled group that we had this incredible innovation.

A young woman spoke up and said, “We do a lot of innovative things, too. We do this thing called native advertising.”

I paused. “You mean advertorials?”

“What are those?”

“Have you seen a full-page ‘article’ in a magazine that’s labeled at the top in small print with ‘Paid Advertisement?’ That’s an advertorial. It’s a form of native advertising that’s been around for ages.”

“Yeah, but we do it in entirely new ways. We do it on tablets.”

I smiled. “Romans were doing native advertising on tablets back when that meant chiseling a rock.”

Everybody laughed. They all thought I was kidding. To be honest, so did I.

Turns out it was no joke. I have a relative who’s an expert in medieval literature and oversees the collection at the Getty Museum. When I told her that story, she informed me that Romans actually did scratch out ads in rock.


Here’s how it worked. Public spectacles were an integral part of the culture; the Colosseum drew crowds of more than 50,000 people. Those with an entrepreneurial bent were smart enough to take advantage of these captive audiences by advertising their services. That included the two most important professions of the era: dentists and prostitutes. Leave it to the Romans!

But I’m left to wonder about a couple of things. If a spectator at the Colosseum showed an interest in one of those tablet ads, would he have encountered a series of related carvings on his way home from the races? Would a smaller tablet have appeared at the entry to his dwelling that day? What kind of incentives might it have offered? Free admission to the chariot races?

Also, what’s the Latin word for “retargeting?” And how did they measure the effectiveness of their tablet ads? They must have done something. After all, it was the Romans who put the M (for mille) in CPM.

#digital  #tangiblemedia  #native advertising  #romans

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About Lewis

Lewis GershChairman and Founder at PebblePost, former VC in adtech, long-time endurance athlete, happy dad to “The Heathens.”

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